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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pilgrim Eagle: A Review of Charles A. Coulombe's

“This above all: To thine own self be true.”
 
 William Shakespeare
 
     Puritan’s Empire by Charles A. Coulombe is a unique tour-de-force of American history from a Catholic high traditionalist perspective. Spanning the colonial period to the modern day, the narrative is tightly-woven and comprehensively arranged. The sheer length and breadth of the volume is a testament to a lifetime’s worth of research. Although some sections are dry, the colorful anecdotes and personal analysis interspersed within the book keep the reader remains engaged, regardless of whether or not they agree with the author’s conclusions.    
 
    As mentioned above, the narrative is being told from a traditional Catholic perspective, and thus is unlikely to coincide with viewpoints espoused by mainstream Catholics and those of differing religious persuasions. I consider myself to be a mainstream Catholic, so my commentary reflects both where we agree and disagree, with all due respect to the esteemed author.

     I really appreciate the way Mr. Coulombe conveys the notion of sacramental kingship within a Catholic society and the nuances of the class system from days of yore. He emphasizes the nature of noblesse oblige as both a privilege and a responsibility, with each layer of the system integrally bound together through a trickle-down of interconnected duties. This was refreshing, given that I often find myself deeply frustrated by modern historical dramas which mangle the social structures of past eras by viewing them through a modernist lens and burdening the past with present perspectives and behavioral norms.

    Many of my favorite characters in history came from the upper classes, and yet still demonstrated great courage, skill, and honor, as opposed to being the foppish and cruel caricatures portrayed on screen. As with all groups, they were mixed, but undeserving of the cookie-cutter negativity reflected in popular culture. While the class system is hard to defend on the basis of equality, it did prove a vital part of preserving civilization during the Dark Ages. Afterwards, it made it possible for fairer societies to emerge for future generations.

    As a Royalist sympathizer, the author always sheds light on the philosophy and plight of monarchists from across the historical timeline. For example, one of my favorite sections gives a detailed overview of the Loyalists during the American Revolution. He not only covered the individual conditions of the Tories in each of the thirteen colonies, but also highlighted the Catholic support for King George III, as exemplified by the Catholic Scottish settlers in the Mohawk River Valley and the Irish Volunteers from Philadelphia.

     These heroes of a lost cause are often overlooked in favor of the Catholic supporters of independence, such as the prominent Carroll family of Maryland. As a long-time student of the British perspective, it was very pleasing to see them finally getting their due. Coulombe also gives King George himself a fair-handed and sympathetic treatment, countering the theory that this much-maligned monarch was a tyrannical madman. This is certainly welcome when most historians focus on his losses and later illness rather than his humanity.

    On the flip side, the book tends towards a decidedly harsh view of The Enlightenment and the interconnected ideas that spawned the age of Revolution during the Long 18th Century. My response to this would be to point out that The Enlightenment, just like The Renaissance, was a flowering of learning and culture that in of itself was greatly beneficial. Humanism is fully compatible with Catholic teaching, so long as it does not take the place of the Divine in the hearts of men. It is all a matter of balance, just as every virtue is a balance between two opposite extremes. Indeed, the Enlightenment emphasized the importance of this, which is why the “Enlightenment Man” was quite similar in his ability to change hats as the “Renaissance Man”, learning a variety of practical and artistic skills that made him a more well-rounded human being.

   With regards to Deism, while it is certainly incomplete from a Catholic perspective, it still managed to make out the divine presence revealed in the light of the sciences, mathematics, and creation. This actually fits into the “reason” part of Catholic teaching quite well and provides an ample amount of common ground to stand on. The missing component is the “faith” part, embracing the concept of divine interaction with humanity through revelation and miracles. Nevertheless, I still find historical Deism much more commendable than a denial of God of altogether, and there is always hope that faith will come forth from reason.

     Another part of the book I appreciated was the author’s marked enthusiasm for the world of literary achievements. He delves into the major names and artistic movements with ease, and deftly explains the natures of the different literary inspirations and how they related to the historical periods in which they sprang up. I particularly enjoyed his description of the differences between the Age of Reason and the Age of Romanticism in art and culture. I can appreciate elements of both, and feel that they actually manage to complement each other rather well if held in check.

   Again, perhaps this is another manifestation of the marriage of faith and reason that is so much a part of Catholicism. We may see God both in ordered realities and scientific precision, but also in the supernatural, the mysterious, the symbolic, and all the things that fill us with that awe before the divine which C.S. Lewis calls “numinous.”  So it is with being able to appreciate the rational elegance of the Enlightenment Period and the wild, folkloric beauty of the Romantic Age. The author accurately points out that reason without romance fails to satisfy the soul, and yet romance without reason leads to reckless abandon and spiritual anarchy.

     All this ties into another fascinating topic introduced in the book, dealing with the effect of the J.R.R. Tolkien on the “hippies” and “flower children” of the 1960’s. While Tolkien himself was an orthodox Catholic with traditionalist leanings, The Lord of the Rings managed to capture the imaginations of those seeking something decidedly “out there” to fit their new identities. It was a time of change and turmoil, of both moral awakening and moral distortion, but through all of this, the story of the simple hobbits facing the depths of depravity in order to save the good in the world resonated deeply. Indeed, it tapped into an underlying need for hope in the midst of chaos that made it an international sensation.

     Continuing on in the realm of the arts, the author does an excellent job covering the story of the entertainment industry in America. Similar to the mythology surrounding the Wild West, the notion of shooting to stardom has ingratiated itself into the popular psyche. As the daughter of an entertainer who spent much of his life performing for celebrity gatherings in and around Hollywood, this topic has always deeply fascinated me. Mr. Coulombe brings to light both the triumphs and tragedies of the business, as well as the massive influence it had on Americans, and ultimately world-wide cultural development. For better or for worse, it is a business built upon the art of storytelling, and as such carries immense clout. As Catholics, learning the history and nature of the craft is vital in helping change the culture for the better.

     Mr. Coulombe takes an interesting view of America’s Civil War, demonstrating the many complex motives behind the movers and shakers on both sides. He accurately portrays Abraham Lincoln as being more concerned about preserving the union than liberating the slaves (although the slavery issue was still an important one to him, and he did desire it to come to an end), and the fact that many southerners who fought in the war actually never owned slaves. However, I disagree with his glorification of the agrarian life and southern aristocracy. While there are good elements present in every society, such a system of injustice built upon slave labor and impoverished tenant farmers could not have continued unchecked into the modern age. I believe the romanticism for “moonlight and magnolias” is largely misplaced, and willingly overlooks the suffering of the majority who made the pleasure of the few possible.

     Furthermore, although no one doubts that the South went through a great deal of suffering during Sherman’s March to the Sea (although I have a feeling it evened the score on how much suffering they inflicted on their own people, black and white), Mr. Coulombe refers to this as “unequaled by anything in the annals of Christian armies.” I simply cannot grasp this given how many brutal and barbaric campaigns were carried out in Europe alone, not to mention the New World continental conflicts, which involved all sorts of barbarity and blood-letting, using fire and sword to wrest control of the land. Sherman was simply following that long tradition of making war hell for the rebellious populace.

    Lastly, I cannot concur with the concept of some type of Utopian settlement for the continent if the south had achieved their independence. There is no guarantee whatsoever that slavery would have ended “naturally”; given the intensity of the “states rights” arguments in favor of slave owning as one of those “rights”, it would likely have been an agonizingly slow death to say the least. As Lincoln himself indicated, the only way to root out the evil seemed to be through blood. If that was the price, then the blood was well worth shedding. The way of the Old South was dying hard, but the seeds of a more just society were being planted. Democracy was finally getting the chance to assert itself, and even through the torturous years of segregation and racial prejudice, everyone knew there was no turning back.

     Another area of note was the way the author covered Queen Isabella of Spain. I appreciate his overview of the achievements of this very powerful and pious woman, and how her legacy affected the history of Christendom and the Age of Discovery. Indeed, he lent a fascinating background to the voyages of Columbus and others as not simply a search for New World riches but also missionary endeavors. That having been said, I strongly disagree with the author’s method of defending Isabella’s expulsion of the Jews from Spain. While Mr. Coulombe does make some valid analysis appealing to a wider historical context, he then proceeds to make a theologically-driven implication about non-Catholics being “outside salvation”, which he indicates would somehow justify them being cast out of their homes.

    Firstly, I would respond that even if mainstream Catholicism backed this harsh spiritual judgment against non-Catholics, it still would never justify any physical maltreatment of the aforementioned; and secondly, over the past 60 years, Catholic teaching has embraced an ever-broadening understanding of “Baptism by Desire”, and the nature of what it means to actually be a “member of the Church”. Ultimately, this is determined by the individual’s relationship with the Holy Spirit as defined by their ability to live out the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, not the exactness of “club membership”.

    Although the sacraments are invaluable portals of grace found within the Catholic Church alone, any soul truly seeking the truth and acting upon it to best of their ability is well within the bounds of divine grace. Indeed, being human makes them inherently equal to us before God, and God is the only one capable of judging the state of souls. Some may perceive this to be an alteration of traditional Catholic doctrine instead of a broadening of understanding, a shift of interpretation, and an opening of windows to allow in a fresh breeze while still upholding the time-tested structure. But the Church is a living, breathing organism, like the Tree of Life. It is always growing, always expanding, and yet springing forth from the same seed of Truth planted by Jesus Christ.

     So while Isabella was certainly a woman of her age, complete with her own unique prejudices and theological preconceptions, we need not feel the need to defend her actions on these terms. However, the author proceeds to applaud Isabella for not unleashing a Jewish genocide: “But she did not desire the death of sinners, but that they should live.” This might easily be construed as equating the practice of Judaism with sinful living, and to suggest that religious persecution of this type is somehow acceptable as long as no one dies. Other references to Christian-Jewish relations raised in this book may raise some eyebrows as well, including the injunction that Christians should send Christmas cards to Jewish acquaintances in an effort to bring about their conversion.

     As someone with Jewish friends myself, I respect their own customs and traditions very much, and would affirm them wherever I can, especially where our spiritual journeys overlap in the celebrating of events from the Old Testament. While it is certainly possible for Jewish people to come to the conclusion that Yeshua is the fulfillment of their own Messianic prophecies, I would never wish to be seen as trying to force my beliefs upon them, especially given our admittedly rocky past history of mutual mistrust and prejudice. It is a matter between them and God. Furthermore, Sephardic culture of the Jewish community in Spain holds a special place in my heart, and the scattering of that culture was a tragedy equal to the misplaced Catholic Irish and French Acadians because of religious intolerance.

     Following this trend, Mr. Coulombe makes reference to Protestants featured in his text as “heretics”, even those who were never Catholic to begin with, and tends to negatively portray most major interreligious dialogue efforts. This includes the efforts of Archbishop John Carroll to assimilate the Catholic community into American life and his failure to do more to convert Benjamin Franklin, although Carroll did care for him when he was ill and struck up a life-long friendship with him. Other names to be brought up disparagingly include Cardinal Gibbons and Cardinal Spellman, both pillars of the Church in America. He also expressed his view that Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s popular TV program “Life Is Worth Living” did not make a concentrated enough effort to convert the nation to Catholicism. The Baltimore Catechism also comes under fire as being too modernist.

     In the last section of the book, Mr. Coulombe inserts Paul Blanshard’s “Catholic Master Plan”, which was originally meant to paint a mocking portrait of Catholic teaching for the benefit of xenophobic Protestant Americans. It was intended to make the Church out to be a theocratic tyranny bent on suppressing religious freedom, banning secular schooling, forbidding civil divorce, marriages with non-Catholics, etc. However, the author actually seems to support most of the assertions as being an accurate description of Catholic social teaching in action. The author states as follows: “Yet this is precisely the sort of measures Blanshard describes which are required to save the nation from the twin threats of dystopia and bloody anarchy which appear to await us. Obviously, they are the bare minimum; but think on the benefits which could accrue!”

     I think much of the problem here is the assumption the author makes that “the primary reason for us being here is to make more Catholics.” I would counter that the primary reason for our being here is to show love through living out the virtues at the heart of our faith in Christ; He is the one in charge of any and all movements of the soul towards Him, not any force of human power. Indeed, we must do good out of love for God and neighbor, not as a slippery way of tricking people into the Church. Some things are simply good and beautiful in and of themselves, with no strings attached, and are meant to be relished on that account.

    At the same time, we demonstrate the true essence of being a Catholic Christian to the world by living fully “in the world, but not of it.” To be holy is to be more fully human, and that should be the defining factor of our lives, as opposed to creating a check-list Catholics we make. It is only through this that people will get an accurate idea of what being Catholic is really all about. As St. Francis said when asked why his monks did not preach when doing good works among the poor, he responded, “We did.”

    Of course, we should have the courage and conviction to share and defend our faith, and if someone expresses interest in Catholicism, we should do all in our power to aid them in their spiritual journey. But we must never view human beings as mere projects to work on, but rather truly appreciate them for who they are and develop genuine relationships with them. Each and every human being has the image of God stamped on their souls, and entering into loving relationships with them is of inestimable value in and of itself.

     Furthermore, with regards to our country, I see patriotism as a true love for our land and her freedoms and people, apart from any desire that she become a Catholic state. Indeed, I prefer to live under a government unattached to any established religion so that all of may have equal opportunity and freedom to profess our own in the way we see fit. This is another piece of the Enlightenment legacy, that the law of the land should common good of its citizens, while at the same time refraining from meddling in matters of the individual souls, such as religious belief or sexual morality.

    Mr. Coulombe says that “error has no rights”, but the fact is that people do by virtue of their free wills. Catholicism is more than capable of flourishing in such an environment where the rights of all are suitably secured. We should not see ourselves as infiltrators at war with American society, but rather as a true-hearted part of that society with the goal of making it a better place in which to live, and by extension, to do our best to bring justice and peace to the world. The Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam comes to mind here, meaning “to heal the world” or “construction for eternity.”

     There is also an overarching attitude projected by the author that everything uniquely American is decidedly lesser that the original European version, that any achievement in favor of the American dream should be met with a mild cynicism. Perhaps I am a romanticist, but truth be told, I do believe we are a “city on a hill”, imperfect to be sure, but also a great force for good in the world and a history of tragedies and triumphs that I am nevertheless proud of to the depth of my being. My country may have many hurdles to overcome, but she has many wonderful qualities as well. Seeing all the goodness she has to offer, I do not despair of her future. I am a part of her story, the fabric of her flag. I do not worship her, and yet I love her as I love a mother, and would defend her and work to her greater good for her own sake.

    I do, however, totally concur with Mr. Coulombe on the necessity of rejuvenating our Catholic culture in America alive by continuing to maintain our liturgical traditions and tell the most reassured stories of our heritage. I love the concept of a Catholic cultural revival, bringing back the traditional prayers, songs, prayers, and customs associated with individual feast days and liturgical seasons. We should absolutely “keep Advent until Christmas, and Christmas till Epiphany, feast at Carnival and fast during Lent.” In all this, we should enkindle a sense of community with our fellow Catholics and celebrate together the glories of our faith, and all the epic twists and turns of our redemption story. After all, our liturgy is a great tapestry of interwoven stories of heaven touching earth, and transforming it by that encounter.

    Christ ate, drank, and made merry, as well as fasting and undergoing the ultimate suffering and sacrifice. We follow in his footsteps through these celebrations that mean so much to our life of faith. Furthermore, just as Christ sat at table with the most diverse array of people, we should let these celebrations be an opportunity to keep open our hearts and doors to our non-Catholic friends and neighbors to share the many moods of our faith with them. In the same way, we should also accept the invitations of our non-Catholic friends to partake in their celebrations in any way that is not contrary to our faith and affirming the elements of truth in their own. This enables to finding of that precious common ground on which we all can stand as spiritual beings living the human experience.

     So all things considered, I found Puritan’s Empire to be a fascinating read with a decidedly unique perspective. It certainly engaged me intellectually, and encouraged me to explore more deeply the role of faith in American society and beyond. I would recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better understanding of traditional Catholicism, even to outsiders looking in, as myself. It certainly helps to open up topics for further dialogue. It is available for purchase on Tumblar House (www.tumblarhouse.com/books/puritans-empire.php) as are other books by the same author. In closing, I would like to remark that, in both agreeing and disagreeing, I do respect someone willing to speak their opinion truthfully, as I always strive to do in my own writing and reviews. As Shakespeare said, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

pilgrim-eagle


Saturday, June 11, 2016

He Is Who He Is: A Review of Bernie Sanders' Visit to Gettysburg College

      In my capacity as a magazine editor and correspondent, I had the intriguing experience of attending a town hall meeting hosted by Gettysburg College. The guest of honor was none other than the ever-eye-brow-raising Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (well, from New York really, but he represents “White Christmas” country so…yeah!). As it was quite the memorable excursion, with historical connotations, I shall give it a brief run-down with some of my spiritual take-aways to boot.

     My first brush with Bernie came early on in the election cycle, when I heard his voice emanating from the radio in our kitchen during the first democratic primary debate. My ears immediately attuned to the Brooklyn accent so thick you could cut it with a knife, and a certain sense of familiarity swept over me. At first I thought it was simply because my parents and their extended families both came from Northern NJ/NYC. While my parents’ own accents have lessened greatly and I sound like a true native of Maryland (well, except for perhaps the odd word!), there is something about those guttural tones from “the old country” that continue to strike a deep chord. 

     However, during one of Bernie’s later speeches to his adherents, I came to the conclusion that the sense of subconscious connectivity also derived from the fact that he actually sounded a lot like Readily-Deedily, the dragon puppet character from a NYC-based kids’ show that helped teach me how to read as supplemental viewing! These zonky associations aside, I admit that something about his general demeanor made me feel that, policies aside, there was a certain sincerity and determination about him that was bound to win grudging respect from both sides. This was heightened all the more by the prospects of Clinton and Trump looming large as the front runners.
 
     So as time passed, there was something of a *wink, wink* joke in my house whenever Bernie was heard. And funnily enough, the more we teased, the more he seemed to appear everywhere! On FB, “Feel the Bern” videos popped up aplenty, the most memorable being the famous incident involving a disoriented bird flapping around on stage and landing on Bernie’s podium while he was in mid-speech. The most hilarious part of this was the intimidated grin plastered on his face, as if the “wittle boid” (his words!) were some carnivorous canine preparing to nip of his nose unless he could successfully mollify it! 

     He proceeded to attach an off-the-cuff application to the event that identified said feathered guest as “the dove of peace”. My thoughts: “Dude, that ain’t a dove. Check out the Dictionary of North American Wildlife.” But still, I along with the rest of the online world had to admit it was kind of cute…even if it did sort of resemble William the Conqueror taking a tumble after disembarking from his ship, and then proceeding to convince observing troops that the ground of England was really trying to embrace its rightful king! 

     Nevertheless, the media exploded with references to “Feel the Bird” and “Vote for Birdie”, brandishing a whimsical warbler with spectacles! Some even went so far as to say it was “a sign from above” (some of the Pagans who back Bernie’s environmental policies insisted it was a cue from the Mother Earth Goddess), and a proof that animals are good judges of character…er, I guess because the bird *did not* bite off his nose?? Lastly, there was the inevitable Hunger Games connection, saying that he had been selected to be America’s Mockingjay and was destined to challenge Capitol corruption. Win, lose, or draw, his gallant up-hill battle and victories in the face of the political machine make the connection all the more viable. 

    There were other Fandom reactions to the political goings-on as well. More than a few online communities of Trekkies, suitably dedicated to the Universalist ideals of the fictional Federation, seemed quite enamored with Bernie, and posted out plenteous posters on his behalf. One involved an image of Spock telling Kirk that this was the moment when one of the most powerful earth republics finally embraced the principles that would usher in the era of the Federation. Given that Bernie’s viewpoints do rather resemble those of both Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy, I can’t say this is totally out-of-turn. But in Middle Earth loving centers, I was rather surprised to see a photo-shopped image of Gandalf as Bernie, wielding a staff and bellowing “You shall not pass!” as a giant Balrog with Trump’s head on it lunged towards him! Can’t say how the traditionalist Tolkien would handle having his works hijacked for far left promotional purposes, but it did give me a good chuckle. 

    Lastly, who could ever forget the folk songster efforts of said candidate, whose tones bear such a strong resemblance to Leonard Nimoy’s flat-as-a-squirrel-run-over-by-a-truck vocal range which he exhibited when taking a hiatus from being Mr. Spock of the Enterprise? For Bernie, it was a matter of ancient flower child tradition, and he inevitably participated in a folk album in which he “sang” (more like orated, in flawless Brooklynese) “This Land Is My Land”, which turned into his unofficial campaign anthem. However, it’s worthy to note that at one of his televised rallies, the folk band on stage seemed hesitant to incorporate Bernie in their performance. Even when the eager-beaver senior meandered towards the main mic, mouthing the words, they seemed to have made a pact to ignore his efforts to join the fun altogether! Nevertheless, as one YouTube observer remarked, Bernie’s music videos were so un-cool, they bounced off the Richter scale, boomeranged back, and became ultra-cool! 

     With all these amusing connotations fresh in my mind, I learned that Bernie would be making a visit to Gettysburg College a mere 20 minutes from home (on Earth Day, of all days). So, with nothing better to do, I decided I might as well get a piece of the historical action. Thus, brandishing a media pass, I headed off with my dad to see what could be seen at the campus, as a representative of the Catholic youth of the Harrisburg Diocese. There are a number of things that left an impression on me during the experience which I shall do my best to list. Firstly, I was pleased to discover that our local Bernie supporters, while certainly enthusiastic, were not the crazed revolutionaries marching through Red Square that some media sources made them out to be. Actually, by and large, they seemed quite friendly and welcoming, even though it was clear that were not endorsing their candidate. 
     Interestingly, in the top bleachers, a certain sense of camaraderie developed as everyone tried to save each other’s seats, and I ultimately wound up baby-sitting for the children of one of the Sanders Delegates. The three of them (two girls and a boy between the ages of 5 and 9) were really quite fun to “state out” with, as we held the seat for their mom out preparing for Bernie’s arrival. The little boy was actually celebrating his 5th birthday, with an appropriate sign declaring it to the world! This also resulted in a cupcake devouring fest, although the 11 year old was technically “cheating” as she had just had braces put on her teeth after a recent jaw operation, and her dad, who was one of security volunteers, had beckoned to her repeatedly to come down from the bleachers to take her medication (which she did, deftly navigating the tricky stairs that we warned her to go slowly on lest she take a tumble). But hey, you know, for special occasions and all…cupcakes go a long way! 

     Later on, some young guys from the college wound up sitting in front of us. In souvenir hunting mode, my dad and I had been trying to obtain a Bernie sign to prove we had been there, but they had all been handed out already to the real supporters. Leaning over to the dudes in front as they chatted about hanging their signs in their dorm, my dad teased, “Do you guys have a monopoly on those?” Without a second thought, a curly-haired, fresh-faced young man had given us his sign “for the memories.” Of course, it could have been because the kid was secretly smitten by me (*blush*), or dad managed to shame his socialist conscience into redistributing, but even after I inquired if he was sure about his decision (after all, he was a fan, and I didn’t want to deprive him!), he still insisted we keep it. 

   We had the same positive experience with the members of the Sanders Campaign. As opposed to scruffy looking radicals, we met several young men in suits and ties, brandishing Bernie buttons but not seeking to force their preference on us. They were courteous and respectful, and were invaluable in helping us obtain some more souvenirs such as a pen and a sticker, and helping us get our bearings in general. The Gettysburg College staff was also highly professional during the course of the event, making it clear that the college made no political endorsement, but rather was hosting this event for the education of anyone who wished to participate. However, one of glaring down-sides of the event however was the unexplained and extended tardiness of the guest of honor! Not only was he “a little late”…but a good 3 hours overdue! Indeed, the Bernie-loving natives and unbiased observers alike were getting quite restless. I can’t count how many times the cry of “Let’s go, Bernie, let’s go!” rose from the throng. Seriously, I’ve never seen such a fuss as when the guy with the water pitcher came out to the fill the glasses set up for speakers! 

     When Bernie finally did show up, it was something of an anti-climax. Truth be told, those expecting to encounter a wild-eyed firebrand would be sorely let down as he hobbled around on stage reciting a segment of “The Gettys-boig Ad-wess.” Frankly, by all accounts, he seemed pretty dang normal and only as inspiring as a bowl of vanilla yogurt. Besides the sheer normality, he seemed to have little sense of crowd interaction and/or manipulation. He didn’t even seem particularly moved by the love-fest of the face-painted Bernie fan-girls cheering wildly as if the curmudgeonly senior citizen with messed up white hair and monotonous voice that could be called “the lullaby of Broadway” (as in, it would put anyone to sleep) was actually Elvis reincarnated! 

     Instead, he dutifully paced about on stage, looking and sounding pretty bushed (if I had one practical thing to give the man, it would have been Ricola cough drops), with as much enthusiasm as if he were speaking before an inanimate blackboard. But perhaps therein lies the charm: in sharp contrast to Trump’s proclamations about how everybody loves him, how they would vote for him even if he shot somebody, and he alone can save America, Bernie does not seem to have let the attention go to his head and inflate it beyond recognition. What you see is what you get. As my dad aptly summed it up, “He is who he is.” For good or ill, there is a certain amount of comfort in that. 

     He’s out doing what he sees as his job, getting across the message that he sincerely believes in, but still readily admits that no president, whether his name is Bernie Sanders or anything else, is capable of fixing all the problems in the country on his own. I thought that was refreshingly honest compared with Trump’s braggadocious stump speeches. Another thing that contrasted the two campaigns was that the Sanders campaign seems to really put out to accommodate the disabled, including such things as set up wheel chair ramps and sign language interpreters, whereas the Trump rallies/events are rather infamous for having minimal accommodations of this kind. 

     Of course, there are his controversial policies, which have been called everything from insane to disgusting. He is an unabashed Democratic Socialist, and given the state of Socialist countries such as Venezuela, it certainly has made many eyes roll. But I find it very hard to decry the concepts of universal health coverage (providing private practice is also allowed), tuition-free schools (this is not novel; there were “free schools” in existence as far back as the 18th century), higher wages for the working class (yes, it might cause an economic chain reaction…but is it not fair?), back pay for parents with newborns (also a very fine thought), veteran programs (but of course!), and putting more effort into cleaning out environmental waste (snicker about Earth Day if you must, but there truly is abuse of the environment in various sectors, and Pope Francis leads the way in heightening the Christian consciousness about responsible stewardship of Mother Earth). 

    Mind you, I said the concepts, in and of themselves, not necessarily the means of implementation. When it comes to numbers on paper, his plans often unravel as simply monetarily impractical. But the bare essentials of the ideas are certainly valid to raise from the perspective of Catholic social teachings, and he does us all a service by doing so. We are, after all, living a land where different ideas for the common good are free to be spoken openly and debated. Indeed, Sanders himself says he applauds the fact that his ideas are disagreed with so often, because it is good to hammer things out with others. Indeed, the emphasis on “hammering things out” inspired me to submit a question from the audience, inquiring as to how he would “hammer things out” with the Catholic community if he came into power. Since we had to leave early, I don’t know if he got around to answering it publically or not, but I should like very to found out someday if the question ever hit home, and how he might respond to it in his own words. 

    But after all this deep analysis, and holding my arm extended with a hand-held recorder to take notes for far too long (it hurt!!), my dad and I decided to try and get a quickie pic of the event to prove we had been there. It just so happened that my dad’s 1980’s camera decided to give up the ghost on the spot (maybe it was a Trump supporter!), upon which one of the Bernie supporter kindly offered to take pics of us with her digital camera and then promptly followed up and emailed them to us, showing me standing with Bernie on stage in the background. Afterwards, we decided to truly follow in his presumed footsteps prior to arrival (famous as a diner-hopper and fast food consumer as he is) and settled in for the odd-ish combo meal hamburger, a chicken salad, and a pistachio sundae. Hey, watching those kids devouring cupcakes proved mouth-watering… 

     So what did I take away from this whole experience…I mean, in the broad sweep, and in addition to the edibility factor? I suppose that one we should open to new experiences outside our comfort zones and be willing to hear someone out, even if rumors rail against him. Also, we should never be ruled by stereotypes, thinking that people on “the other side” of the spectrum are not orcs marching out of Mordor. I certainly cannot judge the Sanders followers in total, but the ones I met in my own local vicinity seemed like perfectly good citizens who displayed Christian civility towards us. Indeed, one man in the bleachers who saw my cross commented on how this “Socialist Jew” seemed to him to have the most Christian heart among the leading candidates. I cannot read hearts, but compared to what I have seen and heard from Clinton and Trump, I would have to agree to some extent.

     I am still deeply dismayed at his advocacy of abortion, even up to partial birth, and that will always be a major stumbling block for Catholic voters considering candidates such as Sanders, whose democratic socialism, contrary to common belief, does not instantly blacklist him on the Catholic voter’s guide. But abortion is not a matter of economic or governmental systems, nor is it a “liberal” or “conservative” issue; it’s a human rights issue, and it can’t simply be overlooked as besides the point. In his advocacy of it, he contradicts all of his life-affirming ideals by supporting the killing of the most innocent. And yet in spite of this glaring incongruence, I still feel that his intentions are far more honorable than those of his competitors. Viewing him as a man of integrity in a swamp of corruption, I would be happy to shake his hand. 

     A final item that stands out in my memory is a comparison video between Sanders and Trump. I know these things are publicity gimmicks, and can be taken with a grain of salt. And yet, from my experience and with my sentiments, this one somehow rang true. While Trump’s inflammatory “us vs. them” language flies, a clip from Sanders speech is played: “Love trumps hatred.” Is this not similar to so many things that Pope Francis has been trying to tell the world? But this follows suit, for whatever else Sanders may be, he has shown an appreciation for at least some elements of traditional Catholic social teaching. Indeed, coming from a lower income background himself, and struggling to find his career niche for many years, I believe his sympathy for the underprivileged and his desire for them to have suitable dignity is a sincere one. That he is mocked for taking a long time to find his place in the world just reflects poorly on the mockers, not on his own hard-fought climb and discovery of his talent in the political sphere. 

     Sanders himself is ethnically Jewish, but also seems to be a spiritual searcher with a social conscience, akin to actor Leonard Nimoy in Universalist outlook. He believes in God, but just not “everyone else’s God”. But his Irish wife is Catholic, and it is clear from his speeches while in Rome that he has at least some handle on Catholic terminology, drawing from both the catechism and encyclical documents. He has made clear his admiration for Pope Francis, and told him so in their brief encounter in Italy. His emphasis on the “common good” and the fact that we are “all in this together” is something that joins them together, and I think we should all be able to find some commonality in that, whatever our individual beliefs on his wider policies may be. And if that makes Bernie Sanders a rarity in the American political system, then it is a blessed rarity at that.



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